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Weekly Worker 574 Thursday April 28 2005

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Vote for class independence

Mike Macnair revisits the question of the popular front

lan Davis’s response (Weekly Worker April 21) to my article on popular fronts (Weekly Worker March 31) attempts to defend the International Bolshevik Tendency’s view that it is unacceptable to call for votes for the candidates of workers’ parties which are engaged in a ‘popular front’ policy. The argument is murky, because it is dependent on rather slippery quote-mongering and fails to address my basic historical objection to the IBT’s line: that Trotsky argued, at precisely the time that the French and Spanish people’s fronts were campaigning for office, that the Trotskyists should enter the Socialist Parties in order to link up with left opponents of the people’s front project.

Rhetoric and citation-grazing
Throughout his article, comrade Davis characterises the IBT’s view as their “opposition to the popular front”, the idea being to imply rhetorically that any other policy is not opposition to the popular front. However, popular frontism is in the last analysis merely a particular form of class collaborationism, or the pursuit of, to quote comrade Davis, “the ‘common interests’ of the workers’ movement and a section of the capitalists”. The Labour Party, for example, even when it has been at its most leftist, is a class-collaborationist party. It has been a class-collaborationist party since before its formal foundation as an individual membership party in 1918, in the collaboration of the trade union bureaucrats and most of the parliamentary labour representatives in the war effort in 1914-18.

If comrade Davis is right in the meaning he attributes to “opposition”, then Lenin and Trotsky did not ‘oppose’ Labour’s class-collaborationism, but on the contrary “endorsed class collaboration” when they argued that the early British communists should fight for affiliation to the Labour Party and support the Labour leaders “as a rope supports a hanged man”.

The quotations comrade Davis relies on to support his view of Trotsky’s policy are selective, and the background position, developed by the Spartacists in the 1970s, is a systematic historical falsification. He must know this: the point was convincingly demonstrated by Ian Donovan in his 1998 article, still up on the website Revolution and Truth (http://members.aol.com/RevolutionTruth/popfront.htm). The IBT never answered comrade Donovan. Instead, comrade Davis relies on a brief 1987 exchange between the IBT and Workers Power (in Trotskyist Bulletin No3, available at www.bolshevik.org).

I do not propose to repeat comrade Donovan’s researches into Trotsky’s approach in the 1930s and the output of the Spartacist school of falsification in the 1970s. The reason is that at the end of the day it is perfectly possible that Trotsky’s approach in the 1930s was wrong, and the question has to be addressed as one of theory and evidence rather than citation-grazing. I will, however, add only one quotation to the pile, this time from Lenin in Leftwing communism:

“Prior to the downfall of tsarism, the Russian revolutionary social democrats made repeated use of the services of the bourgeois liberals: ie, they concluded numerous practical compromises with the latter. In 1901-02, even prior to the appearance of Bolshevism, the old editorial board of Iskra (consisting of Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, Martov, Potresov and myself) concluded (not for long, it is true) a formal political alliance with Struve, the political leader of bourgeois liberalism, while at the same time being able to wage an unremitting and most merciless ideological and political struggle against bourgeois liberalism and against the slightest manifestation of its influence in the working class movement.

“The Bolsheviks have always adhered to this policy. Since 1905 they have systematically advocated an alliance between the working class and the peasantry, against the liberal bourgeoisie and tsarism - never, however, refusing to support the bourgeoisie against tsarism (for instance, during second rounds of elections, or during second ballots) and never ceasing their relentless ideological and political struggle against the Socialist Revolutionaries, the bourgeois-revolutionary peasant party, exposing them as petty-bourgeois democrats who have falsely described themselves as socialists” (emphasis added).

In other words, in duma elections the Bolsheviks called for a second-round vote for the Cadets, the main bourgeois liberal party, as opposed to the monarchists. Lenin is not exaggerating for effect here: the historians confirm it. In Whither France? Trotsky quite correctly points out that this sort of limited agreement (“episodic agreements and compromises, confined strictly to practical aims”) is not the same as the programmatic bloc represented by the people’s front (www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1936/witherfrance/03.htm). But neither is calling for votes for opportunist and class-collaborationist parties, while explicitly denouncing their opportunism and class-collaboration, the same as endorsing the people’s front. Again, Lenin may have been wrong. But the IBT’s position has to stand or fall on its own merits.

“When a ‘bourgeois-workers’ party appears before the masses as part of a joint party with the bourgeoisie,” the IBT wrote in its exchange with Workers Power, “it explicitly renounces any claim to stand for the political independence of the workers. For the duration of the bloc, the latent contradiction embodied in such a formation is suppressed. A vote for the ‘workers’ component’ of a popular front is a vote for the ‘one party’ of the bourgeoisie’.”

This general theoretical statement in the 1987 text purports to summarise a 1936 passage from Max Shachtman, which in fact makes no such claim. As an account of Trotsky’s position it is wholly without support in Trotsky’s writings. On the contrary, in Whither France? Trotsky precisely argued that the mass votes for the Socialist and Communist Parties in 1936 expressed rising class consciousness among the workers, which the SP and CP then ‘handed’ to the Radicals:

“Nevertheless, even under these conditions the masses were able to give expression to their desire: not a coalition with the Radicals, but the consolidation of the toilers against the whole bourgeoisie. Had revolutionary working class candidates been run on the second ballot in all the electoral districts in which the socialists and the communists withdrew in favour of the Radicals, they would, no doubt, have obtained a very considerable number of votes. It is unfortunate that not a single organisation was to be found capable of such initiative. This shows that the revolutionary groups both in the centre and locally are lagging behind the dynamics of the events, and prefer to temporise and evade whenever it is necessary to act. This is a sad situation. But the general orientation of the masses is quite clear” (www.marx-ists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1936/witherfrance/03.htm).

Once again, the fact that it is Trotsky writing this does not make it true. The question is: are there grounds for the IBT’s view independent of its falsified interpretation of Trotsky’s position? Or does theoretical analysis lead to another conclusion?

Class political independence
The elementary political ideas of Marxism are dead simple. Marxists insist that there is a fundamental antagonism in society between the capitalist class and the working class. Hence, on the one hand, as long as the capitalists still hold the political power, they will use it against the working class: any concessions made to the working class will be taken back as soon as the capitalists are pressed by a long downturn in the economy leading to intensified competition. The working class therefore needs to organise for political action to take the political power out of the hands of the capitalists, and to begin the process of the socialist reordering of society and overcoming private property and the state.

On the other hand, Marxism claims that all forms of socialism which are not based on the working class taking the leadership of society - utopian, ethical, christian, islamic, green, and so on - are dead ends. This is partly because they leave untouched the fundamental antagonism between labour and capital. It is partly because they endeavour to preserve and promote the petty property rights and ‘independence’ of farmers, small businesses and intellectuals and managers: and these petty property rights and ‘independence’ naturally give rise both to capital, and to the bureaucratic-coercive state.

The idea that the working class needs class political independence - its own party based on its own interests - is therefore utterly central to Marxism. Marx and Engels spent their lives after the defeat of the 1848 revolution fighting for nothing less - which led them to fight for an international movement, reflecting the international character of the working class as a class, and against Lassalle’s efforts to tie the workers’ movement to the national state. They also fought for nothing more: and therefore against tying the workers’ organisations to the particular panaceas of Proudhon, Lassalle or Bakunin, among others; but equally against Hyndman’s efforts to make a particular dogmatic version of Marxism into a minimum basis for a party.

Of course, there is a lot of theory behind these conclusions - and the question of how to get there also poses more or less complex theoretical problems. But the central ideas are simple.

The people’s front rests on the ideas that the divide between ‘the people’ and ‘the monopolies’ (in modern terms ‘the multinationals’), or between ‘democratic capital’ and ‘fascist capital,’ or ‘national capital’ and ‘comprador capital,’ is more important than the fundamental division between labour and capital. It therefore entails repudiation of the basic ideas of Marxism. Thus far comrade Davis is right (and he is not saying anything different from what I said in my March 31 article). The working class can only defend its interests effectively if it does not subordinate them to alliances, which will inevitably prove to be no more than temporary, with sections of capital.

Class alliances
On the other hand, society does not consist only of the working class and the capitalist class. The middle classes are different in the advanced capitalist countries from those in the less developed countries: fewer peasants and artisans, and a larger intelligentsia/managerial class. But they are still there. Nor are the other classes, as the Lassalleans claimed, merely “one reactionary mass”.

So even if the working class had organised itself into a mass workers’ party with the goal of taking the political power away from the capitalist class, it would still need to seek to lead - which implies making compromises and partial alliances with - sections of the middle class.

The working class needs to take the lead in society. So at this level the question posed is not one of blocs with parties. It is what programmatic compromises with the distinct objective interests of the petty proprietors are consistent with the working class struggling to lead the society. This is the issue discussed in Engels’s The peasant question in France and Germany. Engels argues, for instance, that it is acceptable for the workers’ party to promise the peasantry that a workers’ government will not expropriate their holdings, or that it will offer limited protection from certain sorts of fraud practised by the capitalist banks, etc on the peasants. But it is not acceptable to promise the peasantry that their holdings will be protected from competition or subsidised, or to promise peasants (or artisans/small businesses) exemption from the demands of the workers on issues of wages and conditions.

Bourgeois and petty-proprietor parties
The capitalist class is small relative to the size of modern societies. It could not govern the society without the support of the middle classes.

This seemingly simple point is reflected in the character of ‘capitalist parties’. No party anywhere - or, indeed, at any time since the rise of capitalist states - stands for election on a promise to represent the interests of big capital, as opposed to the workers and petty proprietors. Nor is there such a thing as a mass party whose activist base is mainly capitalists. Rather, capital rules through the petty proprietors. A ‘bourgeois party’ is just a petty-proprietor party which has got big enough for the major capitalists to try to control through financial backing, media support, promises and threats - and which is willing to succumb to these blandishments. The various ‘brands’ do not reflect different ‘class fractions’. Rather, they represent different ideological strategies for making an alliance between the capitalist class and the petty proprietors (and, in some cases, the top layers of the working class): ‘democracy’, religion, social conservatism, nationalism, populism ...

A bourgeois party is just a petty-proprietor party which has got big enough to allow the capitalists to govern through it. The converse of this is that, even supposing the existence of a mass workers’ party based on class independence, there can be no ‘petty-proprietor party’ which forms the basis of a class coalition between the workers and a section of the petty proprietors on more than a short-term basis. Making an alliance between the workers and a section of the petty proprietors means winning a section of the petty proprietors to support the workers’ party, not a strategic coalition with a petty-proprietor party or parties.

This does not mean that the workers’ party can do without tactics towards the petty-proprietor parties or temporary blocs and agreements with them. To refuse all such blocs and agreements would be to insist on political impotence and an inability to intervene in actual political life. But the key here is that these are tactical agreements between strategic opponents. They do not imply a cessation of hostilities but - as Lenin wrote in the passage quoted earlier - agreements for limited common action on the basis that the political battle between the workers’ party and the petty-proprietor parties continues even during the common action.

The line of least resistance
Class-political independent organisation of the working class is a difficult path. It offends the general expectation in capitalist society that the workers are subordinate to the capitalists (and the middle classes’ expectation of a higher status than the workers). The capitalist state actively resists it.

In this situation the ‘line of least resistance’ is what Gramsci called a ‘corporatist’ approach. That is, that the working class claims representation as a subordinate group, within the framework of the nation, the constitution or some other petty-proprietor ideology, or that it aspires to ‘overcome class division’: ie, to reduce the superficial appearance of class division without overcoming its material basis, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The result is not just mass working class support for bourgeois or petty-proprietor parties, but also a tendency for workers’ parties themselves to be incorporated within the bourgeois-party game by adopting leaderships and politics which subordinate the working class to the state, or to alliances with bourgeois parties, or whatever. We are now familiar with the phenomenon of ‘workers’ parties’ like the Labour Party and many others, which can function as instruments through which the capitalist class governs. When Lenin called the British Labour Party a “bourgeois workers’ party” he meant something different, but the term is convenient and useful. But there are many more petty-proprietor workers’ parties: ie, ones which are committed to one or another form of petty-proprietor ideology, but are not large enough for the capitalist class to seek to govern through them.

The root cause is the fact that this is the line of least resistance. Consequently it is utterly familiar that when a genuine political crisis develops and the masses begin to break with simple support to their governors, they turn first to parties committed to petty-proprietor ideologies. It is a smaller step to take than the step of grasping the idea of class-political independence all in one go. Thus, for example, the first phase of the Russian Revolution saw a massive growth of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries.

This is all the more true in the situation which has actually prevailed as a result of the course of the 20th century: the workers’ parties created in the time of the Second International were captured by allegiance to the bourgeois states in 1914-18; the communist parties, created to fight for class political independence under these conditions, were captured by the Soviet bureaucracy, which was a segment of the petty proprietors; the petty-proprietor Stalinist ideology of national roads, party monolithism and the people’s front has captured most of the small groups to their left. As a result, the groups and individuals who genuinely fight for class political independence are everywhere small and scattered.

Dynamics and contradictory votes
On this basis it should be possible to see why a vote for a class-collaborationist ‘workers’ party’ can have a contradictory character - depending on the immediate political dynamics. It is undoubtedly a vote for class collaboration. But it can also and simultaneously in the same individual voter be a vote for class independence. The class collaborationists present themselves, sometimes very strongly, sometimes in the most attenuated fashion possible (as in the ‘Brownite shift’ of Labour’s 2005 election campaign) as political representatives of the working class. They do not thereby cease to be class collaborationists. A vote for them may be merely a perceived vote for the lesser evil, like a Democrat vote in the US. But it can express a partial, incomplete and contradictory aspiration to class political independence. This, I take it, is what the IBT mean by “the latent contradiction embodied in” a bourgeois-workers’ party.

The task of the advocates of class-political independence (Marxists, communists) is to find the road to develop this contradiction, to break from the class-collaborationist leaders those who aspire to class political independence but do not yet understand it. This is the ground of communist electoral (and other) tactics towards the Labour Party. The problem is how to dramatise the fact that the class-collaborationists’ claim to represent the interests of the working class is, in fact, inconsistent with their class-collaborationism. Yes, comrade Davis, contrary to your sneers about tactics, this is a tactical problem.

Are popular fronts different?
The IBT comrades insist that popular fronts are somehow different and worse than the class-collaborationism of the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers’ party: remember, a ‘workers’ party’ through which the capitalist class governs us.

In the name of avoiding the ‘touch of pitch’ of popular-frontism, the IBT comrades prettify the class-collaborationist social democratic parties. They are somehow better because they are “based on the organisation of the working class” (1987 exchange) or “reformist workers’ parties that draw a crude class line electorally” (Davis article). But this is a complete misconception. The Labour Party was founded in 1918 against the communists. It was founded on loyalty to the British state and led by people who had loyally supported feeding the European workers into a mincing machine in 1914-18. Its loyalty has been rewarded: since 1945 it has been one of the two poles of British bourgeois politics, and has governed - 1945-51, 1964-70, 1974-79, 1997 to date - in the interests of imperialist capital. A vote for Labour is a vote for class collaboration organised through the relation between Labour, the trade unions and the British state.

Here - contrary to comrade Davis’s assertion - the IBT’s position is by no means unique. ‘Reject popular frontism - vote Labour’ is the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s approach to Respect. But an unqualified vote for Labour in 2005 is a vote for the working class collaborating with the British state in British imperialism’s war on Iraq ... and all the rest of the New Labour crap. A vote for ‘Bliar’ is a vote for the British imperialist state and British imperialist capital. But there is nothing new here. A vote for Wilson, for Attlee, for Macdonald, for Henderson was the same.

The truth is that social democracy and popular-frontism are different forms of class collaborationism, but they are both class collaborationism nevertheless. There is no difference in principle. Both a vote for a social democratic party and a vote for a social democratic or Stalinist party engaged in a ‘people’s front’ are in slightly different ways votes for class collaboration. Both are equally capable of also and contradictorily expressing an aspiration to class independence.

Where there is a difference is in the appropriate tactics towards them. In the case of the people’s front, the class collaborationism of the workers’ parties is expressed by the presence of ‘phantoms of the bourgeoisie’ in the front and their veto over the front’s policy. It is easy to dramatise our rejection of this class collaborationism by focusing on our opposition to the candidates of petty-proprietor parties and movements. In the case of the social democracy, class collaborationism is expressed in relation to the nation and the state power. Focusing on this question is more difficult. It involves selecting contemporary issues which critically express the choice between loyalty to the nation-state and loyalty to the international working class.

In the 2005 general election we - the CPGB - have chosen the question of the Iraq war as the way to focus this question. Other elections would imply other choices.

On the scale of British politics as a whole Respect is a small and unimportant phenomenon. It is what, in my March 31 article, I called an “unpopular front”: one in which a small communist party (here the Socialist Workers Party) uses popular frontism to try to give guarantees to the trade union and Labour lefts that ‘if you will get into bed with us we won’t threaten your class-collaborationism’.

Given Respect’s marginality, it would be defensible in principle either simply to give support to all Respect candidates (because the SWP’s imagined alliance with islamists is utterly marginal to the main character of Respect as an SWP front and to the overall dynamics of British society, and a vote for Respect is really a vote for the SWP), or to reject Respect altogether (because it is merely a sectarian front for the SWP).

The trouble with these approaches has three aspects. The first is that the British Marxist left needs to reassert the fundamental politics of class independence after a century which has been dominated by social democratic and Stalinist class-collaborationism.

The second is that British Marxists need to learn how to handle popular frontism when it appears on a larger scale than Respect (which it undoubtedly will when the present two-party polarity does begin to break down more seriously than it has so far). The Oehlerite sectarianism of the IBT and similar groups, and the pro-Labour pseudo-class politics of the AWL, will be worse than useless in those circumstances. So will any tactic based on ‘critical support’ for the people’s front as a whole which does not attempt to draw the class line between the candidates of workers’ organisations and the phantoms of the bourgeoisie. In this sense our line on Respect for the 2005 election is preparation for future and more serious people’s front projects.

The third is that, while Respect is small and unimportant on the scale of British politics, the SWP has to date survived, while the other, relatively large organisations of the British far left - the old ‘official’ CPGB, Militant, Workers Revolutionary Party and International Marxist Group - have fallen apart or got much smaller. The result is that the SWP, and hence Respect, is large and important on the scale of the British Marxist left. Respect is, hopefully, a culminating stage in the SWP’s evolution towards ‘official’ communism and people’s frontism, which began in the late 1970s with the Anti-Nazi League. If we are to save as many SWP members as possible for class politics, we need tactics towards Respect which express sharply the character of this evolution and attempt to draw the line between class independence and class collaboration.
Propaganda group?

IBT comrades have argued in the past that this line would be appropriate to an organisation which regrouped a large part of the ‘workers’ vanguard’ (the layer of working class activists, currently scattered among the trade unions, the Labour Party, the left groups, and various local and single-issue campaigns and projects). But we are a small propaganda group, whose task is to win forces to ‘true Marxism’ away from the existing ‘fake left’. This requires us to make our positions utterly clear and sharp: to use an expression which CPGB comrades have employed, to make ‘angular’ polemics; to use one common on the far left, to ‘bend the stick’. We can only achieve this, they say, by outright rejection of popular frontist projects like Respect. The AWL has made very similar arguments against the CPGB’s positions both on Respect and on Iraq.

As applied to these issues, this is an utter misconception, and one whose consequences would be tragic if they were not so ludicrously trivial. It is true that the CPGB, the AWL and the IBT are all small propaganda groups and that our press is read overwhelmingly by existing activists of the left. This is reflected in our case by the choices we have made about the character of the Weekly Worker.

Comrade Davis quotes Trotsky as saying - wholly correctly - that communists must “speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be”. The problem with ‘angular’ polemics and ‘bending the stick’ is that it precisely risks not telling the truth.
James Robertson of the Spartacists in the 1970s wanted an ‘angular’ polemic with the other Trotskyists, and hence came out with the line: no support to workers’ parties engaged in a popular front. But to justify this line the comrades had to adopt both a theoretical falsification (the idea that the contradiction in class-collaborationist workers’ parties is ‘suppressed’ by the people’s front policy) and a historical falsification: the falsification of Trotsky’s views in the 1930s by selective quotation, continued in comrade Davis’s article.

Sean Matgamna sought to ‘bend the stick’ against the ‘fake left’ or ‘kitsch left’ over Iraq and Galloway. The result is that the AWL has bought on a large scale the spin put out by the media operations of the British and US states and continues, for the sake of its line, to peddle the bizarre idea that imperialism set out to bring bourgeois democracy to Iraq and that the imperialist troops ‘protect the infant Iraqi workers’ movement’.
Both are examples of allowing the desire to create ‘clear red water’ between the politics of the small propaganda group and its larger rivals to lead to distortion and falsification.

Yes, comrades, tell the workers the truth. The truth about Respect is that a vote for Respect is a vote for class collaboration - because it is a vote for the SWP’s ‘alliance of Marxists and islamists’. It is simultaneously a vote for class independence - because it is a vote against subordination to the British state’s war in Iraq. Communists argue for a vote for working class Respect candidates to drive that contradiction towards class political independence.

The truth about Labour is that a vote for Labour is also a vote for class collaboration - both because of the whole history of Labour, and because Labour is right now in government. It is simultaneously a vote for class independence - because Labour is still the ‘trade unions’ party’, still calls itself Labour, and so on. Communists argue for a vote for anti-war Labour candidates to drive this contradiction towards class political independence.